Sponsored by Grace Design

Grace Design: this small but mighty Colorado pro audio company has ridden some of the largest waves of change in the industry.

Grace Design: Small but Mighty-mike-eben.jpg
Mike and Eben Grace in the Grace Design facility in Lyons, Colorado.

Born out of a love of music and a passion for audio performance, Grace Design has benefitted from technological trends but held strong to their core principles: audiophile sound, impeccable build quality, and customer service.

Livening Up The Dead

Well before handheld digital audio recorders, compressed files, and cloud storage download links made it super simple to share recorded audio with any Internet-connected person in the world, a fanatical underground of devotees formed a subculture of tape-traders exchanging live recordings of The Grateful Dead concerts.

But the pursuit of Grateful Dead-bootlegging happiness was plagued by a lack of recording gear that was both reliable enough to capture the legendary Grateful Dead Wall of Sound live PA system and small and light enough to be carried. By the mid-1980s, many of these live “tapers” used the Sony PCM-F1, an early two-channel PCM recorder. It was a quasi-portable digital recording solution with two brick-like units—a convertor and a recorder—that people taped tightly together. But the problem was how to get a good microphone signal into it. At that time, there weren’t really any outboard microphone preamps. But with the necessity in place, the invention would soon follow.
Grace Design: Small but Mighty-grateful_deads_wall_of_sound-1974.jpg
The Grateful Dead in 1974 in front of the Wall of Sound PA system. Photo: Mary Ann Mayer.

Eben and Mike Grace, the founders of Grace Design, grew up with a love of music from their parents’ collection of classic albums from the ’60s and ’70s. For most of their lives, Eben played and made music, while Mike tinkered with audio equipment, trying to figure things out like how to make the loudest possible stereo. By 1985, Mike was working on recording studio maintenance and worked at Jeff Roland’s hi-fi audio design company. Both he and Eben were pretty big Deadheads at the time, and Mike was curious about how the Grateful Dead bootleggers could get a better mic signal into their recorders. So he started repurposing the phono stages from Jeff Roland’s hi-fi designs into two-channel microphone preamps. That project started to turn Mike Grace from a tinkerer into a pro-audio designer.

A New Audio Company for a New Audio Category

It would take several more years of tinkering before the Grace brothers founded their company. While they made records for Eben’s bands on a two-inch, 24-track tape machine and mixing console, Eben “always just tagged along” with Mike on his audio projects, learning to solder and help out in other ways.

Grace Design: Small but Mighty-location_recorders_inc_ad-_1970.jpg
Public domain photos from a Location Recorders, Inc. ad in the ’70s.
Despite Mike’s early forays into two-channel microphone preamps for the Deadheads’ Sony PCM-F1s, outboard mic preamps weren’t much of a thing in the ’80s because portable recording was so impractical back then. “Mic preamps were typically just what was at the top of the console,” Eben says. If you wanted to record outside of the studio, you needed to use a remote truck from a company like Le Mobile, Record Plant Remote, or Location Recorders.

But all that changed quickly in the early ’90s with the advent of portable 8-track digital tape recorders like the Alesis ADAT (1991) and the Tascam DA-88 (1993), which were reputedly a bit more reliable than ADATs. The DA-88s helped Mike and Eben go from making custom one-off mic preamps and other audio gear for a handful of people to formally establishing their first product.

Grace Design: Small but Mighty-kitaro-playing-early-90s-cc-sa3.0.jpg
Kitaro performing live in the early ’90s. Photo: Domo Music Group.

Kitaro, a Japanese new age artist and composer living in the mountains near Boulder, Colorado, was planning a tour in the wake of his Golden-Globe Award-winning score to the 1993 Oliver Stone movie Heaven & Earth. He was touring with an orchestra, and put together large racks of the first batch of DA-88s to record the performances. But he wanted mic pre-amps to be the front end of the DA-88s rather than a console.

He hired the Graces to make a run of 10 eight-channel mic preamps for his tour, and those preamps became the basis for Grace Design’s first product, the Model 801 microphone preamplifier. The brothers officially founded the company in 1994.

The Model 801 established Grace Design’s long-running reputation for audiophile performance and functionality, but as high-level recording was becoming more portable and accessible, the Model 801 also helped establish the outboard mic preamp as a standard category of pro audio equipment.

Grace Design: Small but Mighty-grace-design-original-model-801.jpg
The Grace Design Model 801 eight-channel microphone preamplifier, circa 1995.

“That was part of recording’s democratization prior to Pro Tools,” Eben says. “You could get a couple of ADATs and maybe a Mackie or other little mixer and have a recording studio. As opposed to like, a million dollars worth of gear, you could do it for $10,000.”

Grace Design spent many of its first years “dreaming up iterations of mic preamps and creating them,” according to Eben, producing a two-channel version (M201) for smaller needs and a remote-controllable eight-channel preamp (Model 801R). “Some of it is driven by what we think is the niche to fill, and some of it is driven by just what we think is cool,” Eben says, “and what do we need for recording our own music?”

However, just as Grace Design catered to the momentum of digital recording with outboard microphone and instrument preamps, perhaps the most significant revolution in music technology history was about to change the direction of the company, as well as the entire audio industry.

Grace Design: Small but Mighty-mike-m801.jpg
Mike Grace working on a Grace Design m801 mk2 preamp.

Computer Revolution → Monitor Revelation

Of all the changes the brothers Grace have seen in audio technology since their fascination began as children in the ’70s, recording to and mixing on a computer as a viable alternative to analog/digital tape and a console caused the greatest disruption, albeit a mostly positive disruption.

“The number one undeniable biggest change was putting music in the computer, which was a huge windfall for us as well,” Eben says. “When you could get a Pro Tools system with a couple audio cards in about 2002, it was a godsend because we didn't have to use DA-88s or ADATs, which were a nightmare.”

The computer and outboard gear took over much of the recording and mixing functionality from the recording workflow, but there was still a big piece missing from the puzzle. “The one thing left unattended was the monitor,” Eben says. “How were you going to turn the volume up and down, set up cues, do talk back, switch between speakers, mono mute—stuff like that. Even if you get the best rack unit interface with volume control on it, you’re going to outgrow that monitoring capability pretty fast. That’s when we came up with the idea of standalone hardware monitoring for studios without a console. That was where we were lucky, smart, or some combination thereof. That niche has been by far the biggest boon for our company; 65 or 70% of our business is our monitoring products.”

Like its products before them, Grace Design’s monitor controllers concentrate on high-fidelity, top build quality, and comprehensive functionality. The now-discontinued m904 Stereo Monitor Controller from 2004 was an all-in-one rack unit, while the current models include 2U rack boxes with breakout wired remote control units with large displays. The second-generation m905 for 2.1 monitoring of three sets of stereo speakers and a subwoofer comes in a lower-priced all-analog version and a version with full DAC and analog/digital connectivity.

Grace Design: Small but Mighty-dsc_2081-2-edit.jpg
The Grace Design m908 Surround Monitor Controller.

However, Grace Design’s big star of the moment is the m908 Surround Monitor Controller, for handling the monitoring of all formats, from stereo and surround to immersive audio—from 2.1 to 22.2 channels. The company designed it from the ground up for absolute accuracy, 24-bit/192kHz support, and powerful DSP offering 12 bands of parametric room correction EQ on every channel.

Just as Grace Design has been ready for big shifts in audio technology in the past, its m908 was ready for the immersive audio explosion before it even happened. While the Tidal streaming platform announced support for Dolby Atmos in 2019, it was Apple Music’s embracing of Dolby Atmos in June 2021 that put the name of Spatial Audio on seemingly everyone’s lips. Along with many other formats, the m908 supports the Atmos 7.1.4 configuration, and Grace Design has updated its firmware to integrate target EQ curve settings in accordance with the recently published Dolby Atmos Music Studio Best Practices.

Grace Design: Small but Mighty-dsc_2105-edit.jpg
The m908 monitor controller supports configurations from 2.1 to 22.2 channels, including the 7.1.4 Dolby Atmos.

Thriving in Unlikely Times

As everyone knows all too well, not all shifts in the pro audio and music industries result from technological progress. The global coronavirus pandemic devastated the live performance sector and disrupted other types of production for a time, but people’s insatiable desire for music and entertainment precipitated a swing toward live streaming for music and other audio or audiovisual productions. The continuing trend of studio-building also held steady, as Grace Design found out shortly after the lockdowns of March 2020.

Grace Design: Small but Mighty-grace-test-studio.jpg
The Grace Design test studio.

The close-knit company of about 20 employees treats its staff like an extended family, working in a diligent but casual atmosphere of musicians and music-lovers in the somewhat idyllic environment beneath the Rocky Mountains of small-town Lyons, Colorado, just north of the city of Boulder. While Grace Design sources components from overseas, its small staff does all of the product design, assembly, testing, and shipping from the former honey-producing facility that it bought and remodeled about 10 years ago. There’s even a small on-site studio where people can record, mix, overdub, etc.

Grace Design: Small but Mighty-test2.jpg
The show must go on at Grace Design.

So of course Mike and Eben only reluctantly furloughed their employees when the COVID-19 lockdown first took effect. However, that only lasted for a few weeks, because the company’s orders did not slow down. They have been very busy ever since, barely being able to keep up with demand. As of the summer of 2021, Grace Design was selling a couple of m905 monitor controllers a day, a situation that has pleasantly surprised Eben. “I cannot wrap my head around how many studios have been built,” he says. “If you buy it with a DAC, our m905 monitor controller is about $3,500, and we absolutely cannot make them fast enough. To think that there's that many people around the world, 30-50 people a month installing a $3,500 monitor controller blows my mind.”

There has also been significant interest in the m108 1U eight-channel mic preamp that Eben attributes to people stepping up their live streaming game. He calls the m108 a “21st-century” preamp, because it’s loaded with technology such as eight digital outputs of 192kHz ADC, Ethernet networking, and reference DAC and headphone amplification.

Grace Design: Small but Mighty-studio.jpg
The Grace Design m108 eight-channel mic preamp inside the company’s in-house studio.

Building Gear and Relationships That Last

Ever since Mike and Eben began making custom, one-off audio gear in the early ’90s for engineers and artists that they often knew personally, they have set the goal of making products that don’t break and don’t disappoint anyone by falling short of the highest-quality sound and performance. They have several motivations for striving to make reliable gear that will last as long as possible. One is the pride of making pristine gear, and as life-long musicians and/or producers and engineers, they take offense to unreliable gear. Second is that even though Grace Design does not make budget-priced equipment, it is still a narrow-margin company, so it’s just bad business if they make products that upset their users or need to be sent back for repairs. Also, they grew up environmentally aware and in an outdoorsy culture in a beautiful place; they cringe at throw-away consumer culture and don’t want to see their products end up in a landfill.

Grace Design: Small but Mighty-our-shop2.jpg
The Grace Design workshop in Lyons, Colorado.

“If you're manufacturing electronic products, there's just no way to do it entirely green,” Eben says. “They’re full of unspeakably precious materials that have been gouged out of the Earth somewhere and forged into something we're recording our song with. So it should work well. If we’re talking about a purely analog mic preamp, that thing should work forever. You should be able to hand the equipment down to your kids. That gets more complicated the more digital technology goes on board, but we can do better every chance that we have.”

Fortunately for Grace Design and its customers, internal circuitry is so much better now than in their original days of mounting and soldering things by hand. The circuit boards they use today are much more rugged, miniaturized, and precise for handling their complicated embedded digital technology. Every unit they produce is also listened to and tested thoroughly. “Our gear is so reliable, and that’s a big part of why it's so transparent and clean sounding and never breaks,” Eben says.

Grace Design: Small but Mighty-fancy-grace.jpg
Grace Design FELiX2 Instrument Preamp/Blender units with one of their newest fans.

Grace Design backs up that claim with a 20-year warranty on its all-analog gear, and a 5-year warranty on everything else. And when customers do have a problem or a question, the company tries to treat everyone with the same kind of familial relationship it has with its employees, whether they’re a banjo player gigging with the new FELiX2 dual-channel instrument/microphone preamp/blender or an orchestral engineer working in immersive audio with the m908 surround monitor controller.

“We all go out of our way to make sure anybody who contacts our company goes away feeling like they talked to a real person,” Eben says. “You’re creating a bond with a customer. I just don't want anybody to feel like Grace Design was a bust in terms of the human component. It's a people business anyway; it's not just gear. And we get to meet a wildly divergent cross-section of people. We relish all of those relationships.”